Friday, 20 June 2014

The Littorial Combat Ship – does a failed ship means a failed program?

The Littorial Combat Ship (LCS) was supposed to be the United States Navy answer to naval warfare in the 21th century. The LCS was supposed to be a ship capable of operating in the littoral waters around the world, reaching places the bigger US Navy warships weren’t capable of reaching. It is designed to be a versatile craft, capable of completing several different tasks. The most innovative thing about the LCS is that it comes with several different mission modules, allowing the ship to be optimal equipped for a specific task. Whenever the mission changed, the ship would only have to switch its mission module to be ready for a new task. Switching the module would only take several hours; maybe a day at most as it was envisioned.

The program however was plagued by several setbacks that in the end cast its own doom. The ship was built to be capable of every mission it was expected to do and so the US Navy ended up with an all-round ship that in the end turned out to be too weak to survive full combat .

The ship

Already at the beginning of the LCS program it became clear that it was structurally unsound. Coming out of the Cold War the demand for building warships decreased and many shipyards now find themselves without orders. In the LCS program both Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics were in the running. Lockheed Martin proposed the Freedom class while General Dynamics proposed the Independence class. As the US government couldn’t decide it allowed both designs to be built with each company building up to 25 ships. It is still unclear why the US government made this radical decision but given the fact that two major companies were involved and the difficult situation in US shipyards, one can assume that a lot of lobbying over which design was to be chosen might have been involved. This allowed the US Navy to break with tradition. The US Navy always focused on having one design for each type of ship. Oliver Hazard Perry’s formed the backbone of modern frigates, Arleigh Burkes for destroyers, Ticonderoga’s for cruisers and Nimitz class for carriers. By replacing the Oliver Hazard Perry’s with 2 new classes of warships the US Navy made it’s logistical supply system a bit more complicated as it is now forced to keep 2 sets of different spare parts to supply the 2 different classes of LCS ships instead of one set for one type of ship.

A USS Independence class follewed by a USS Freedom class

The second problem was the fact that construction cost increased over the years. Once again there are no clear details why but this seems to be an universal problem throughout the world. In order to get contracts shipyards make a low estimate of the costs which always turn out to be too low once the building process starts. An interesting example of this is the Russian-Indian deal to modernize the former aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov for the Indian Navy. It makes sense that both shipyards increased costs in order to make as high as possible a profit once they saw the original order of 50 ships split in half between both designs.

Budget overruns caused the US government to stop approving the construction of more ships. This already signaled a possible end for the LCS program. The US Navy however kept pushing for the LCS program as both its Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates and its minesweepers were getting too old to be kept in service. A replacement was badly needed and only the LCS program was available. Starting all over would cause a delay of several years.

The LCS program faced another setback when studies revealed that the LCS is incapable of fighting a conventional surface warfare. The LCS is too ill-equipped as a frigate. Its 57mm gun is a step backwards compared to the 76mm guns normally installed on frigates. It also lacks the protection to defend itself against anti-ship missiles installed on other frigates. Its survival category is rated just below that of the Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates it is meant to replace. This meant that for operations in the Western Pacific against the Chinese and North Korean Navies, the LCS was not capable of performing as needed and would become an easy victim in a confrontation.

The LCS seemed however to be a good ship to combat asymmetric threats such as fast attack crafts and mine warfare. The LCS would therefore be perfect for operations in the Persian Gulf where the biggest threat are Iran’s fast attack craft and threats of mining the Strait of Hormuz. Likewise it would perform well in anti-piracy operations.

The final nail in the coffin of the LCS program came on February 24th, 2014 when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directed the US Navy to come up with alternative proposals for a new surface combatant the size of a frigate. Hagel was more focused on the evolution of geopolitical affairs in the Western Pacific and the role that is required from the US Navy, notably the US 7th Fleet, in this region. As stated early, a LCS didn’t fit in that theater. At the same time the total amount of LCS to be built dropped from 50 to 32. Unless the LCS can prove that it can carry enough firepower and protection to operate and survive against more advanced warships, notably in the Chinese navy, then the project seems to stop right there.

The program

The strength of the LCS was its capability to adapt itself to new missions. This was done by installing modules on board of the ship that could be changed in port when the mission changed. Several different modules allow the ship to perform counter mine, anti-submarine and surface warfare. A specialized crew, trained for a specific mission, would be transferred on board together with its new module.

Unlike most military ships who can only excel in one or two tasks, the LCS was capable of performing a large set of tasks at a high level of efficiency. It was capable of adopting very fast to a changing environment of threats. This is what made the LCS so revolutionary. When for instance the threat changes from anti-submarine warfare to counter mine warfare most navies will require to replace their anti-submarine warship, being either a frigate or destroyer, and bring in a mine hunter. All a LCS had to do was go to the nearest friendly port, change its modules and be back in the warzone in a minimum of time. The cost of changing the module compared to bringing over a new warship in the warzone was envisioned to be lower. We must stress the word envisioned as the LCS program so far never faced this situation and no hard data is available to prove this concept.

Lay out of a USS Independence class

Still, the concept of a modular ship is revolutionary and has an enormous impact on smaller navies. Having one platform, capable of performing a wide set of tasks all depending on the change of modules, would allow smaller navies to play bigger roles. Instead of buying several types of warships, each one specialized in one task, one platform would be needed. This would decrease procurement costs in smaller navies allowing them to allocate more money for operations. At the same time there can be a reduction in crew. Take for instance the hypothetical situation in which a country has 8 mine hunters and wants to play a more assertive role on the high seas and start protection its trade routes. This is a mission more suited for a frigate. Instead of selling some mine hunters and buy new frigates and retrain a whole crew a simple change in module could decrease the cost. No new ships have to be build or bought. Most of the crew can remain like navigation and technical personnel as ship characteristics and heavy machinery haven’t changed. Only the crew attached to the modules need to be changed.

All this would give smaller navies  the ability to participate in missions that would otherwise be outside the scope of their capabilities. In a rapidly changing world one can see that naval threats can change easily and fast, ranging from the Iranian threat of mining the Strait of Hormuz, to the threat of the Chinese submarine fleet and piracy in both East and West Africa and drug smuggling in the Caribbean. Modular ships offer the possibility to confront all of these problems with only one platform.

There is however a huge financial pitfall in modular ships. The by far most important factor that make naval ships so expensive is technology. When you want the latest technology installed on your ship, you are going to pay a very high price. The concept of a modular ship currently only exists in the LCS program and therefor the only modules that are being developed are those for the LCS. This gives a country little options if it wants to acquire modular ships and its modules. This technology is still in its infancy and development costs will be passed on to the consumer. The failure of the LCS program also put an end to the development of modular ships and unless it gets continued by another big navy that will pay for the development then this technology will be out of reach for several smaller navies at this moment and in the near future.

LCS modules designed to fit in containers to facilitate transport

One must also take into account the extra modules and their operating crews. Changing the modules on a ship can obviously only work if an extra stock of different modules is available along with trained crews.  Although envisioned to be less expensive than a seperate ship that would normally be required, the extra modules and their crews will still have to be payed for, even when they remain on standby until they can be deployed on board of a ship.


The LCS program is deemed to be a failure but only because of a faulty platform. When the US Navy looked for a replacement of both its minesweepers and frigates the LCS program seemed to be the answer. The use of modular systems to change the capabilities of a ship were revolutionary and would be more economical then having several types of warships .

Several problems in the LCS caused its downfall. Starting from an indecision of the US government to select one design. Both Lockheed as General Dynamics let the building costs of the LCS rise in order to gain a profit. At the same time the LCS was both in size and primary armament a mix of a frigate and a minesweeper. As such, it was a platform incapable of keeping up with the missions that were expected of a frigate. It was underpowered in armament and its survivability lay lower than a frigate.  This itself seemed no problem as long as the US Navy was focused on the Middle East but the Asian Pivot meant that the US Navy mean adversary was the Chinese Navy (PLAN). The PLAN ships are modern and carry a lot of firepower. As such an LCS wasn’t capable of confronting the PLAN and the need for a fully capable frigate was issued by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on February 24th, 2014.

Although LCS program is cancelled, its principal idea of a modular ship is appealing for smaller navies seeking to expand their capabilities at the lowest cost as possible. For them, the concept of a modular ship is not only vital but it is essential as smaller navies don’t have the budgets to build or buying the several ships needed to confront the several naval. More often than not smaller navies need to prioritize and specialize on one task only while relying on other navies to cover the other aspects of naval warfare that they themselves aren’t capable of fulfilling.

The LCS program of the US Navy has been a failure. Unfortunally its main concept, a modular ship that can adapt to changing maritime threats, is doomed to be labeled a failure as well. Many maritime thinkers think of a modular ship only as  the LCS program and because the LCS is a failure, for those persons the modular ship concept is labeled a failure as well.

Still, the concept of a modular ship has never been put into question and is essential for smaller navies as it would allow them to take a bigger role on the high seas that were before impossible for them to fulfill. Modular ship design and development might have been halted for now but the concept is so revolutionary that it will reemerge in a couple of years. If the modular ship concept is placed on a decent platform then the failure of the LCS program won’t be for nothing .

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